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Consensus Process

from: http://www.activism.net/peace/nvcdh/consensus.htm
What Is Consensus?

Consensus is a process for group decision-making. It is a democratic method by which an entire group of people can come to an agreement. The input and ideas of all participants are gathered and synthesized to arrive at a final decision acceptable to all. Through consensus, we are not only working to achieve better solutions, but also to promote the growth of community and trust.

Consensus vs. Voting

Voting is a means by which we choose one alternative from several. Consensus, on the other hand, is a process of synthesizing many diverse elements together. Voting assumes that people are always competitive and that agreement can only be reached through compromise. Consensus assumes that people are willing to agree with each other, and that in such an atmosphere, conflict and differences can result in creative and intelligent decisions. Another important assumption made in consensus is that the process requires everyone's participation, in speaking and in listening. No ideas are lost, each member's input is valued as part of the solution, and feelings are as important as facts in making a decision. It is possible for one person's insights or strongly held beliefs to sway the entire group, but participation should always remain equal.

What Does Consensus Mean?

The fundamental right of consensus is for all people to be able to express themselves in their own words and of their own will. The fundamental responsiblity of consensus is to assure others of their right to speak and be heard. Since our society provides very little training in these areas, we have to unlearn many behavior patterns in order to practice good consensus process (see "Overcoming Oppressive Behavior," in this handbook). Consensus does not mean that everyone thinks that the decision made is the most efficient way to accomplish something, or that they are absolutely sure it will work. What it does mean is that in coming to that decision, no one felt that her or his position on the matter wasn't considered carefully. Hopefully, everyone will think it is the best decision; this often happens because, when consensus works properly, collective intelligence does come up with better solutions than could individuals.

The Process of Consensus Agreement, at least informally, should be sought on every aspect of group meetings, including the agenda, the times the group should take for each item, and the process the group should use to work through its tasks. The following is an outline of formal consensus, the process a group uses to come to agreement on a particular course of action. First, the problem should be clearly stated. This might take some discussion, in order for the group to identify what needs to be solved. Then discussion should take place about the problem, so the group can start working towards a proposal. The biggest mistake people make in consensus is to offer proposals too soon, before the group has had time to fully discuss the issue. Tools a group can use during this preliminary period of discussion include brainstorms, go-rounds, and breaking up into small groups. When it is apparent that the group is beginning to go over the same ground, a proposal can be made which attempts to synthesize all the feelings and insights expressed. The proposal should be clearly stated. Then discussion is held on the proposal, in which it is amended or modified. During this discussion period, it is important to articulate differences clearly. It is the responsibility of those who are having trouble with a proposal to put forth alternative suggestions. When the proposal is understood by everyone, and there are no new changes asked for, someone (usually the facilitator) can ask if there are any objections or reservations to the proposal. It helps to have a moment of silence here, so that no-one feels coerced into agreeing. If there are no objections, the group is asked "Do we have consensus?" All members of the group should then actively and visibly signal their agreement, paying attention to each member of the group. After consensus is reached, the decision should be clearly restated, as a check that everyone is clear on what has been decided. Before moving away from the subject, the group should be clear who is taking on the responsibility for implementing the decision.

Difficulties in Reaching Consensus

If enough discussion has occurred, and everyone has equally participated, there should not be a group decision which cannot be supported by everyone. But depending on the importance of the decision, the external conditions, and how the process has gone, the group might be on the verge of reaching a decision you cannot support. There are several ways of expressing your objections:

Tools for Consensus Process

Check-ins

Usually used for introductions, but besides names, people can tell the group how they're feeling (anxious, silly, tired), or what they expect from the meeting (certain decisions, certain length). A group might adjust their agenda according to the emotional state or practical needs revealed by the group during check-in.

Go-rounds

Each person is given a certain amount of time to speak on a particular subject, without having to comment on other contributions, or defend their own. Should be used at the beginning of discussion on an issue, if only a few people are doing the talking, or if the group seems stuck for good solutions.

Brainstorms

a short time during which people can call out suggestions, concerns, or ideas randomly, sometimes without being called on. Helps to get out a lot of ideas fast, stimulates creative thinking. It's not a time for discussion or dialogue. Someone can write down brainstorm ideas on a large sheet of paper so everyone can see and remember them.

Breaking up into small groups

Depending on the size of the original group, this could be from three to a whole affinity group. A small group gets a chance to talk things over for a specified amount of time before reporting back to the large group. This gives people a chance to really listen to each other and express themselves, and is very useful when a group seems unable to come to consensus. In a spokescouncil meeting, breaking up into affinity groups to discuss issues or to make specific decisions is often necessary.

Fishbowl

In a large group, or a small group which seems hopelessly divided, a fishbowl helps to make clear what's at stake in particular positions. A few people, particularly those who feel strongest about an issue, sit down together in the middle of the group and hash things out freely for a designated period of time while the group observes them. The people in the middle don't come to any decisions, but the fishbowl gives everyone a chance to hear the debate without involving the whole group; often hidden solutions are revealed.

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